Photo by Ron Link

Best remembered among local theater aficionados as the notorious matron in Tom Eyen’s hit comedy Women Behind Bars, which ran for months at the Coast Playhouse and the Roxy in 1983, Lu Leonard died last month of massive heart failure at the age of 77. Women Behind Bars helped rekindle a TV career for the then-56-year-old actress, who guest-starred in Cagney & Lacey, Who’s the Boss?, Laverne & Shirley, The Facts of Life and Married . . . With Children, among many other series.

Leonard was born to vaudevillian parents and recalled growing up on the road in her one-woman show, Goodrich and Price and the Child. She appeared on Broadway in five shows, including The Pajama Game and Happiest Girl in the World, and spent much of her career in nationally touring musicals. Local credits also included A History of American Film at the Mark Taper Forum and Baby With the Bathwater at the Coronet.

“She was always too smart for the room,” recalls her lifelong friend Joe Ross, referring to her penchant for free-wheeling and sometimes lewd wisecracks. Leonard spent her final years at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, where Ross says she’d often have the other residents in stitches: “She’d look around the room and say, ‘What am I doing with all these older people?’”

Singer-actress Carole Cook performed with Leonard on the road and remembers a particular stare she had, “a slow burn that would reduce you to blubber.” Says Cook, “It was impossible to sit next to her at a show that was, well, less than stellar. She’d turn her head and look at you, and that look made it impossible to watch the rest of the play.”

The look was particularly effective not only because of Leonard’s gift for timing, Cook explains, but because she was otherwise “such a generous and gentle soul.”

Leonard leaves no family. A memorial service this summer will be announced.

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